Priest Guilty of Molesting Found Dead

By Kevin Eigelbach
The Cincinnati Post [Cincinnati OH]
Downloaded December 8, 2003

A priest beaten to death in Lexington last week molested and tried to rape a boy in Northern Kentucky more than 40 years ago.

That's according to the victim, Dan Willett, who was also a plaintiff in one of two sexual abuse lawsuits that the Roman Catholic Diocese of Covington agreed to settle in October for $5.2 million.

Lexington attorney Angela Ford, who represented Willett, said Father Joseph J. Pilger, a convicted sex offender, also served in some Northern Kentucky parishes in the late 1970s and early 1980s. He served at St. Patrick's Church in Maysville in 1978, and then as a chaplain at St. Elizabeth Medical Center South in Edgewood. He also served in Newport, Ford said, but she didn't know when.

Pilger was reassigned to Lexington in 1982, she said.

According to Lexington police, Pilger was found dead in his home Friday. The 78-year-old priest was apparently killed sometime between Wednesday and Friday, Lt. Kellie Edwards said. He appeared to have died from blunt force trauma.

Police had not made any arrests in the case as of Sunday night, Edwards said.

Pilger's car is missing, Edwards said. Neighbors told the Lexington Herald-Leader that a young man had been living with Pilger for the last few weeks, but Edwards said she couldn't confirm that.

Willett, now 57 and living in Orlando, Fla., said he was sad to hear what happened to Pilger. "Nobody deserves to go that way. It's not what I would have wanted for him," he said.

Over the course of his career, Pilger apparently served in the dioceses of Covington, Lexington and Owensboro. It wasn't possible Sunday to get a complete picture of when he served where. Diocese of Covington spokesman Tim Fitzgerald said the diocese wasn't able to provide more detail Sunday night.

Willett said he knew Pilger when he was the associate pastor of St. Paul's Church in Lexington in 1958, when the church was part of the Diocese of Covington. Willett's parents allowed Pilger to take him on a trip to Covington to see the Cathedral Basilica of the Assumption.

While in Northern Kentucky, Willett said they stopped at Pilger's father's house. There, he said Pilger pinned him down on a bed and tore his clothes off.

"He was telling me what he was going to do, and how I was going to enjoy it," Willett said.

He said he told Pilger to get off him and that Pilger's father would hear him scream. Pilger said he could go ahead and scream, that his father was deaf as a doornail.

Over the next two years, Willett said, Pilger continued to roughhouse with him and touch his genitals when he visited Willett's home. When Willett told him he would tell his parents, Pilger told him to go ahead. "Who do you think they will believe?" he asked Willett.

The abuse stopped only when the Willett family became members of another parish.

Willett remembers a day in 1962 when about half a dozen parents of other boys visited his home. His father asked him if Pilger had ever tried to do anything sexual with him, and he said he had.

"The next day, they went to the bishop. And Joe Pilger just absolutely disappeared," he said.

Pilger went to New Mexico for treatment, Willett said, then went to the diocese of Owensboro, where he would offend again.

In 1994, Pilger pleaded guilty to three felony counts of indecent or immoral practices. He admitted that he sexually abused three young brothers when he pastored a Union County church in the late 1960s.

Willett said he blocked Pilger's abuse from his mind until Pilger's arrest in 1993. Then, his life "went to hell in a hand basket," he said. He said he lost his faith, was divorced from his wife of 35 years and lost the ability to concentrate. He had been a pretty successful accountant, he said, but now he's running a convenience store.

The Diocese of Covington agreed to pay for his counseling in 1992, and has paid for it ever since. The diocese also has agreed to pay for counseling for his ex-wife and children, he said.

Along with 23 other plaintiffs represented by Lexington attorney Angela Ford, Willett sued the diocese of Covington over his abuse. The diocese at least owed him the difference between what he had earned before 1993 and what he's earning now, he said. As part of its settlement with he diocese agreed to pay him $125,000, he said.

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